SAN JOSE - One of the biggest criticisms of the Sharks at this early point in the season has been that its younger players hadn't stepped up yet.
That changed on Sunday evening in San Jose's 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames.
Sure, San Jose's young stars Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Kevin Labanc all found the net in the victory. But when Hertl and captain Logan Couture addressed the media postgame, independent of each other, both pointed to newcomer Dylan Gambrell's emergence over the last few games as a key factor in the Sharks' recent success.
Gambrell's positive production as fourth-line center is giving San Jose more offensive depth. While the Sharks' forward attack is still a work in progress, the 23-year-old forward is evolving into the pivotal player the team needs.
"He's been given an opportunity and these last two games he's really shown what he's been capable of," Couture said. "When we have that line playing well and the other three rolling over, we're a tough team to beat."
Head coach Peter DeBoer agreed with the assessment of his captain.
"For him, that's all about competing," DeBoer said of Gambrell. "Sticking his nose in there and competing. His skill and speed will take over and he's starting to do that here regularly."
There was a spotlight on Gambrell heading into training camp after he signed a two-year contract following a season in which he bounced between the AHL and NHL. But the University of Denver product didn't readily establish his game when he was plugged into the top six through the preseason and, like the majority of the Sharks, struggled out of the gate in the first few games of the regular season.
After penciling back onto the fourth line, Gambrell's game visibly changed.
"I think he saw that he was close to being sent back. That's the reality of it," DeBoer admitted. "He wasn't as effective (in training camp) as he is now. And maybe that's on us. Maybe we asked him to do too much. We played him on the wing on the top two lines and maybe it was too much for him."
Back at the center position on that fourth line, however, the speedy forward has been on an upward trend. He's been more effective in the faceoff circle and more aggressive on the puck, which gives San Jose depth down the middle that they, frankly, have been missing since last season.
"He had a little tough start but now he's playing a really hard game and this is what we need," Hertl said. "Good on faceoffs, strong on the puck."
Continuing that higher level of compete can make the Sharks' quest to establish a four-line game a bit smoother. As San Jose has encountered through the first six games of the season, the Western Conference is stacked with teams that can get production out of any line they roll out onto the ice. While the Sharks' offense is still in the process of getting healthy -- Marcus Sorensen is still sidelined -- the team needs to get its four-line game in place if they're going to completing recover from their rough start to the season.
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"In this league, you need four lines," Hertl summarized. "It's not about just one line. Every night you need four lines plus your goalie."
If Gambrell can continue this upward trend, the Sharks have a better chance of achieving that goal.